“Birth of the Dragon” — a story about Bruce Lee’s emergence as a martial arts superstar and his epic showdown with another Kung Fu master – has its world premiere Tuesday afternoon in Toronto. Producer Michael London (“Trumbo”) and director George Nolfi (“The Adjustment Bureau”) talked to Variety about the enduring popularity of Lee and the reasons they believe their film, featuring a cast laden with Chinese stars, could become a cross-cultural phenomenon.
Bruce Lee died in 1973 at the age of 32. Why will audiences in 2016 respond to a character from the last century?
London: “Bruce Lee is this iconic figure who represents a sort of meeting of East and West. We are at this really extraordinary moment in history right now, with China opening up to the West and the West becoming fascinated with China. Bruce Lee’s myth endures and it feels like the world will be really open to learning about how he became the mythic figure that he did.”
How did you know that passion for Lee remained high?
Nolfi: “There is not a single place — in China, or the U.S., or Canada or the rest of the world — that people don’t know his name or have an enormous affection for him and for his story…. He did something that was thought impossible in the early 1960s — to be an Asian man who became this major star in the West. And I would say that he remains the most famous martial artist of all time and, at the same time, the most famous Asian person in the West.”
The film centers on a fight between Lee and Wong Jack Man, which occurred in the mid-1960s in the San Francisco Bay Area. Why is this fight, held before just a handful of witnesses, so legendary to kung fu aficionados?
Nolfi: “It’s a fight that is still disputed, as to how and why it happened and even as to the outcome. It was because of this fight that Bruce Lee reinvented his style and arguably invented the whole concept of mixed martial arts. … So the reaction of anyone who knows martial arts is strong and instantaneous. And even many people who are less familiar know that Bruce Lee brought martial arts and kung fu to the West.”
Images of Bruce Lee still appear on T-shirts and posters around the world. With such an indelible impression, it must have been hard to cast the role.
Nolfi: “Probably my single biggest fear in taking on job of directing this film was, ‘How the hell am I going to find somebody with incredible charisma, great martial arts ability, the pure physicality of Bruce Lee and someone who is also fluent enough in English to be able to be funny and compelling…. After months of searching, it became clear that [Hong Kong born, Chicago-raised] Philip Ng was unquestionably our guy. He stepped up to the plate in a way that went beyond anything I imagined. I think Bruce Lee fans will look at this film and say ‘Oh my gosh, that must be what Bruce Lee was like when he was 24.’ “